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The problem with the anti-Catholic argument is that the Church has never defined usury as “taking interest on a loan.” Instead, the Fifth Lateran Council (1515) defines usury as follows:
“For that is the real meaning of usury: when, from its use, a thing which produces nothing is applied to the acquiring of gain and profit without any work, any expense or any risk” (Session X).
Thus, usury is not “charging interest on a loan.” Usury is profiting from something which produces nothing, without any effort. Depending on the circumstances, this could apply to money, bushels of wheat, widgets or other goods. To better understand the Church’s teaching on usury as it relates to money, we must understand how money was viewed and functioned before we had competitive markets.
In the economies of antiquity, there was little or no opportunity to invest money to make a return. Money was used for private, not commercial exchanges. Accordingly, using Aristotelian terminology, money was considered “barren.” That is, money had no inherent value while idle. It could only be consumed or hoarded.
Of course, the nature of money has changed over the centuries. In today’s global economy of competitive markets, money is no longer “barren.” To the contrary, money is “fruitful” because there are many opportunities to invest money to make a return. Thus, a transaction that would have been usurious in the past would not necessarily be usurious today. Because money in today’s economy is “fruitful,” the act of loaning money in such an economy at interest is not usurious (since money has value even when idle).
Pope Benedict addressed this in his encyclical Vix Pervenit (November 1, 1745):
“…entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract. Nor is it denied that it is very often possible for someone, by means of contracts differing entirely from loans, to spend and invest money legitimately either to provide oneself with an annual income or to engage in legitimate trade and business. For these types of contracts honest gain may be made.”
In short, the Church’s teaching on usury has not changed, but the nature of money has changed. Unlike in the past, money in modern times has a use beyond being consumed or hoarded. It can now be invested to yield a return. Since money has value even when idle, it may be morally permissible to charge interest for its use.
Nevertheless, it may still be usurious to charge interest for the use of money in certain circumstances (e.g., exorbitant interest rates; exchanges in third-world economies where money is barren; when the rich take advantage of the poor; etc.) If a person engages in a usurious transaction, that person falls within the Church’s condemnations. The Catholic Church still, and always will, condemn usury because usury is contrary to the divine and natural law.
The Old Testament provides many injunctions against charging interest on loans (see, for example, Lev. 25:26-27; Deut. 23:19-20; Neh. 5:7,10; Isaiah 24:2; Jer. 15:10; Ezek. 18:8,13). There are a couple of things to note when reading these passages.
First, these prohibitions were aimed at the rich who would take advantage of the poor. Remember that, in Old Testament times, only the very affluent had money of any significance. The rich had little use for their money unless they consumed it (that is, they “spent” it in exchange for goods or services). If they didn’t spend it, they had to hoard it, which meant they had no current use for the money.
Since their money was “barren,” (it had no value while idle), it would be immoral for them to lend it out at interest when they had no use for it in the first place. They would be reaping gain with no effort, at the expense of someone else. This, as the Church teaches, is the definition of “usury.”
The following Scriptures prohibit usury:
Exodus 22:25 “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.”
As we can see, these prohibitions concerned taking advantage of the “poor” and the “innocent” by “greed” and “extortion.” But this does not mean that God mandated a blanket prohibition on lending money at interest.
For example, God permits charging interest on a loan in Deuteronomy 23:20: “To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest; that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land which you are entering to take possession of it.”
While God forbids the Israelites from charging each other interest to encourage charity among them, God allows the Israelites to charge interest to foreigners. Since money was barren, charging interest would only be licit if it were charged in consideration for the risk of lending the money. Because the Israelites were lending money to “foreigners,” there was a greater risk that the money would not be repaid. Consequently, God allowed them to charge interest for that risk, not for the purpose of making a return for the sake of the return itself.
Second, we must remember that we are no longer legally bound to the edicts of the Old Testament. The New Testament has completely revoked the legal, moral and ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant, including the legal prohibitions against usury (2 Cor. 3:14; Heb. 7:18; 8:7; 10:9). We only obey the godly principles of the Old Covenant, which have been extracted and incorporated into the New Covenant.
Jesus explains this in His Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said that you shall not kill (v.21), you shall not commit adultery (v.27), you shall procure a bill of divorce (v.31), you shall not swear falsely (v.33), you shall take an eye for an eye (v.38), and hate your enemy (v.43). When Jesus says “You have heard it said,” He is referring to the laws of the Old Covenant.
Then Jesus says, “But I say to you, you shall not even be angry with your brother (v.22), look lustfully at a woman (v.28), get divorced (v.32), swear at all (v.34), not be vengeful (v.39), and love your enemies (v.44). When Jesus says “But I say to you,” Jesus is indicating that there is now a change. Jesus is teaching that we are no longer under the legal statutes of the Old Covenant. But we must obey their principles. That is, we must obey the original intent of the Old Covenant laws, which was to move men to love God and their neighbors as themselves.
This applies to the lending of money. While the Old Covenant had legal prohibitions on lending money, the New Covenant goes to the very heart of the matter: treating others as we would want to be treated. Jesus sums it up this way: “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). Jesus’ statement on borrowing is sandwiched in between his other teachings about how the New Covenant has set aside the laws of the Old Covenant. The spirit of the New Covenant is charity, even to the point of sacrifice. As Christians, we are to give to others freely, for “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). This is the essence of loving God and neighbor.
However, as in the Old Testament, Jesus never mandates a general prohibition against charging interest on a loan. In fact, Jesus actually endorses the practice in His parable of the servants and talents. Jesus, who is the Master in the parable, declares to the servant who failed to use His talents: “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest” (Matt. 25:27; Luke 19:23).
Since Jesus condemns the servant for failing to invest His money to make interest, the charging/earning of interest cannot be an intrinsically evil practice. Jesus would not chastise His servant for failing to do evil. Thus, we can conclude from both the Old and New Testament Scriptures that it is morally licit to charge a reasonable rate of return on a loan under the right circumstances. As we have seen, since money in our modern markets is “fruitful” (that is, money can be productive even when idle) it is morally permissible to charge/earn interest on money (which is NOT “usury”). This is the teaching of Sacred Scripture and the Holy Catholic Church.